Beware Americans Bearing … Well, Anything

There are lots of reasons for New Zealand to keep a very wide berth of anything and everything to do with the American Military – like Vietnam, Iraq, Afghanistan, the ‘War on Terror’, etc. etc. But of course we somehow can’t help ourselves in desperately wanting to play with the Big Boys. That’s the message that comes through very powerfully in Nicky Hager’s 2011 book, Other People’s Warswhich meticulously chronicles how our military, over and over again, subverted the instructions of the Government in an effort to suck up to the Americans and British. Not that the politicians come out of it so well either. 

So, here we are again. Being courted by the U.S. for some military build-up in the Pacific. I rather like how the Washington Post reports that U.S. Defence Secretary Panetta, just back from an Asia-Pacific swing, “assured his hosts that U.S. plans to add troops, ships and a new missile defense site in the region are not meant to threaten China”. Troops, ships and missile defense sites? Threatening? Whatever makes you think that?

I tend to think the Americans are hunting around for an adversary more appropriate to an annual defence spend of $NZ 800 billion than the Taliban. Otherwise, in times of “austerity”, how can you justify it? On the other hand, have they ever needed to justify it?

If there’s one thing I heard recently that I consider the best evidence for keeping clear of the Americans, it was an interview with NYT reporter Kurt Eichenwald about his new book “500 Days: Secrets and Lies in the Terror Wars”

It was on Democracy Now! and the full transcript is here. But I’ll just attach the really scary bit (Nermeen Shaikh is the interviewer):

NERMEEN SHAIKH: One of the most interesting accounts in your book is of President Bush trying to persuade—then-President Bush trying to persuade French President Jacques Chirac to support U.S. military action in Iraq. You write that Bush said to Chirac, quote, “Jacques, you and I share a common faith. You’re Roman Catholic, I’m Methodist, but we are both Christians committed to the teachings of the Bible. We share one common Lord.” Bush goes on to say, quote, “Gog and Magog are at work in the Middle East. Biblical prophecies are being fulfilled. This confrontation is willed by God, who wants to use this conflict to erase His people’s enemies before a new age begins,” end-quote. Can you elaborate on that exchange? [emphasis added]

KURT EICHENWALD: That was a very interesting day when I heard that. This was a phone call—at that point, Chirac had been expressing a great deal of doubt about the intelligence that Saddam Hussein had weapons of mass destruction. His doubts obviously were well placed. And Bush was trying to get a unified—you know, unified effort behind getting a resolution from the U.N. and then for military action. And Chirac was not being particularly cooperative, for the very reason he didn’t trust the intelligence. And so there’s this phone call, and Bush is, you know, giving many reasons why France should become part of a—why Chirac should be joining in. And he’s not having a lot of success. And suddenly you shift into this religious conversation.

And Chirac’s response to this was, you know, he gets off the phone—and other people had been—you know, had been in on the call, and he looks at his staff and says, “Does anyone know what he was talking about?” And they—his administration, someone there reaches out to an expert on the Bible in Switzerland, and this person—because it’s like, what is Gog and Magog? And this person writes up a report for—I mean, I just say this, and it’s surreal. He writes a report for the French president explaining these biblical terms that were cited by the president of the United States in this national security conversation. And Gog and Magog are two—are from two the books of the Bible, one the Book of Ezekiel and one the Book of Revelation. And it is central elements in, you know, the apocalyptic—you know, the Armageddon concept. And so, Chirac’s response when he reads this is, “I’m dealing with a fanatic, and I’m not going to make, you know, national security decisions for France based on someone—you know, the president’s interpretation of the Bible.”


Workers Unite!

When the Socialist Workers Party candidate for the US Presidency, James Harris, visited NZ for a couple of days, I went to Ngaruawahia and listened in on his chat with some Horotiu meat workers not long off the picket lines in the 3-month Affco dispute. The very next week, the CTU Runanga and a group of iwi leaders held a hui in Tauranga to talk about sticking together a bit more in the future in the interests of low-wage workers, particularly Māori workers/union members. It was the group of iwi leaders that played a key role in ending the Affco dispute, flexing their economic muscles — and mana — around the negotiating table. Which led to my writing a column for the BOP Times putting both together — or trying to anyway.

The thing is, I’m never sure if or when the BOP Times will put my Saturday columns online. That one’s not up yet, so I thought I’d link to the pdf here. Meanwhile, I’m working on a longer piece about the hui and the idea behind it for Werewolf… Howwwwlllll…. And there’s a bit more about it in the post just below this one, Workers as Beneficiaries.

Workers as Beneficiaries

There’s been a fair amount of coverage of the role iwi leaders played in ending this year’s 12-week Affco dispute, including that they flexed their economic muscles by reminding Talley’s, Affco’s owner, that Maori own 4.5 million worth of stock and send a good chunk of it to Affco plants for processing. The iwi leaders indicated they could possibly rethink that if the dispute that was having a disproportionate impact on Maori workers (because Maori make up a disproportionate part of Affco’s workforce) wasn’t resolved. Which, at that point, it fairly quickly was.

In an effort to cement that worker/union-iwi relationship, the CTU Runanga organised a hui this past week in Tauranga that was attended by several of the iwi leaders themselves, and the heads of the country’s major unions.

It was a fascinating day for a lot of reasons, but particularly for what it could — emphasis on could — mean for the future. I’m working on a column and longer article on this nascent alliance,  which clearly has the potential to benefit all wage workers (since what helps Maori wage workers is likely to help all wage workers, and Maori leaders were definitely looking at that broader picture). Could it also help start to change the narrative — the narrative CTU president Helen Kelly talked about at the hui that increasingly portrays workers as beneficiaries of benevolent/charitable bosses?

She’s right. We always seem to roll around on our backs like submissive hounds whenever  a business says it’s going to set up and ‘provide jobs’. Yes, workers need jobs, but it would be great to bring a little balance back into the conversation, and stop treating employers as though they are charities and workers as though they’re getting handouts in a food kitchen.

Given that our employment laws stack the deck in favour of employers, it’s no wonder that narrative has taken hold. There’s been some discussion around the traps about what policies, if you could wave a wand and implement some, would be a priority. I’m still working on my list, but an easy place to start (and absolutely free!!) would be to start changing this benefactor/beneficiary story-line when we’re talking about people who work for a living*.


*’People who work for a living’ would include unemployed workers and others receiving assistance from their fellow citizens, i.e. “on benefits”.

Blogging Parasites II

Beyond any relatively trivial media tales of my own (post before this one), Gordon Campbell rebuts John Armstrong’s column so very well.  Bryce Edwards weighs in, too, though gives more ground than Campbell … well, actually, Campbell doesn’t give any. Here’s one point (among many) that struck me from Campbell’s piece:

Let me just say that, beyond the name-calling, there are two substantive issues involved here. One, it has been true for years that the only ideology in media circles that gets called as such is on the left. Right wing propagandists are taken as the sensible norm by the corporate media.

This is something I’ve been thinking a lot about both with respect to journalism, but also beyond. Sadly, MSM journalism will, of course, follow whichever economic orthodoxy is dominant — might makes right, so to speak. Or, to the victors go the “sensible norms”.  Maybe the Angry Journalist Column is an early sign, as Campbell suggests, that this is changing. It’s not just journalism’s agreed upon “sensible norms” that are under threat, but the economic orthodoxy upon which they are parasitic (had to get the word in somewhere). On the other hand, that’s probably a tad optimistic and definitely premature.

After all,   I recall thinking  — naively as it turned out — in mid- to late- 2008 that the economic catastrophe that was quickly bearing down on us all would surely, at the very least, raise questions about the neoliberal programme we’ve been following so slavishly for so long. Like I said, naive. It was absolutely reminiscent of the thought that the finding-of-no-WMD in Iraq would finish W’s chances of re-election in 2004. In both cases, it seemed to make not a jot of difference. Though one still has hopes some longer term lessons can be learned. (It’s definitely far too easy to pronounce failure in the short term.)

It would be interesting, I thought at the time, to go talk to the people at the Business Schools and Economics Depts to find out how they were changing their syllabi and reading lists in the wake of the 2008 meltdown. Hah!

But, back to Campbell. Yes, exactly right. The “left” is largely a joke to MSM, with the “right”, as Campbell says, is “the sensible norm”.

It’s hard not to see the kind of thrashing about that John Armstrong is doing in his column — the death throes of MSM essentially — as being in part a clinging to the days when Paid Professional Journalists truly did control pretty much all the flows of news and information. Unless you were rich enough to be able to afford a subscription to that wafer thin version of the International Guardian or committed enough to subscribe to an alternative news magazine, what MSM dished out was IT.

Tim Murphy, the editor in chief of the Herald, Tweeted after the relaunch of the paper last week (this from memory) something about how NZH had set the news agenda because TV had picked up NZH stories for its news bulletins that night. But is “setting the ‘news agenda'” (apparently measured by whether or not it’s on TV) the best way of judging whether or not your newspaper is a success? We all know how news agendas can go terribly terribly wrong: think NYT and the “aluminum tubes”. It’s also out of date.

If Paid Professional Journalists care as much as they keep saying they do about the craft of journalism — about taste, and accuracy and fairness — they should champion and embrace journalists like Campbell, who works his rear off trying to build something of quality in the vast universe of crap that is the Web-o-sphere. There sure is indeed a whole lot of junk out there, but the work Campbell and Edwards do is not part of it.

The only conclusion that makes sense at this point is that it’s because their work is good that it’s such a threat.

Blogging Parasites

I was interested to read John Armstrong’s piece in Saturday’s Herald on Blogging Parasites — as the original headline put it (“Blogging Parasites Don’t Let the Facts Get in the Way”). That headline isn’t around anymore – now they/we are just called “Bloggers”. Better!

Two things sprang to mind as I read the article, one somewhat personal, the other a very small part of a wider critique of the mainstream media that’s been festering around in my head for quite some time. The personal point relates to this sentence in John’s article: “Does it occur to them [bloggers] to actually pick up the phone and try to talk to those journalists about what is happening and why things are being reported in a certain way?”

Actually, I tried to do just that earlier in the year for an article I was researching for Werewolf (the very Werewolf edited by the same Gordon Campbell excoriated in John’s article) on how the media deals with opinion polling, in particular, a few polls carried out by Family First.

I wanted to talk to a reporter at The Sunday Star Times about  an article headlined “Conservative Young Cautious on Sex Education”. I won’t reprise the whole thing here, but suffice to say, I couldn’t find much evidence in the survey results to back up what the story was saying. I wanted to ask the reporter about how he came to draw the conclusions he did.

Well, it turned out that there’s apparently an unwritten rule (and one it seems John doesn’t know about either) that journalists don’t ask other journalists about their stories. Or so one of the higher-ups at the SST told me. They declined to comment, then accidentally copied me in on an email between two SST staffers in which they discussed me and my request in less-than flattering terms. (I was, one wrote, “a ‘journalist’ who I’ve never heard of”, who “lacks the brains to understand” she shouldn’t have tried to call the reporter directly, and who was writing for “an obscure left leaning website” etc. etc.)

That experience leads me to believe that even if ‘journalists’ from outside the mainstream media did try to do as John suggests, we’d be told in no uncertain terms to naff off.

I worked in the mainstream media for a lot of years (in fact, many moons ago, I worked with John Armstrong in the Press Gallery for the New Zealand Herald)  and actually still do contribute to a couple of outlets – book reviews for The New York Times and a Saturday column in the Bay of Plenty Times. But I’m also committed to trying to help build a vibrant alternative media, through outlets like Werewolf.

Why? Because the mainstream media is failing. I’m afraid that so much of what John criticises bloggers for applies to those working in the mainstream. Accuracy and taste and facts? Reporting on the so-called ‘terror’ raids of 2007 and on the Ahmed Zaoui case are two examples that spring to mind where all of these were lacking. Some of the sensationalised reporting, with dubious anonymous sourcing, in both these instances did real damage to real people’s lives. Nicky Hager chronicles the appalling treatment of Zaoui in his book Other People’s Wars, as well as the media’s often uncritical reporting of things military. Perhaps that’s why his book was greeted by that same media with hostility. As Hager put it in Walkley magazine:

After years faced with frustrating military PR and secrecy, I expected the New Zealand media to welcome this information: chapter after chapter on special forces, intelligence, navy and air force operations and more, all referenced to internal documents. But the reaction was strikingly negative from several news organisations, ignoring revelations that would normally make the front page and instead attacking me. It raises some interesting issues about journalism.

So does John Armstrong’s column.

Welcome to my site

Welcome to my Web site. It’s home to a bunch of my published writing (well, links anyway), including feature articles, columns and book reviews. There’s a page about my forthcoming book on the recent history of the abortion rights struggle in New Zealand, and, of course, this blog right here on the home page. I welcome comments and feedback, but comments will be moderated and the usual rules apply: no personal attacks or gratuitous meanness, nothing defamatory or offensive.